Many years ago, when Vani Dandia’s son was very young, she had a bitter experience while looking for a house on rent. When signing the rent agreement, the broker asked her to declare that her son was her only family, even though she had informed him that her parents and friends often visit – he did so to ensure that no strangers would be found in her house. “That was the moment I felt really icky about how sick society’s worldview could be towards single moms.”
When we think of ‘family’, we think of a man, a woman, and at least one child, if not more, living harmoniously. But statistics show us a slightly different picture.
A 2019 report by UN Women says that in India, 4.5% of all the households are run by single mothers – that’s 130 lakh women.
Another estimated 320 lakh single mothers are living in extended families. With a whopping 450 lakh women living as single parents, it’s safe to say that ‘family’ isn’t what we think it looks like.
So, how do single-mother households work? Are there any specific challenges that come with it? What kind of changes should we expect from the existing structures that still see ‘family’ as a couple? I spoke to single mothers from different walks of life – marketing professionals, teachers, freelancers, and business owners – to get answers to these questions.
Assumptions and preconceived notions around single motherhood are sometimes exposed.
“From women in my building discreetly moving their husbands away from me in the lift to aunties in the society not allowing their kids to play with my girls cos they come from a “broken family.” I have seen it all,” [sic] says Melanie Andrade, mother of a 16 and a 20-year-old.
While not all single mothers necessarily experience blatant discrimination, some instances can be painful.
Because marriage and family are so rigidly defined in a society such as ours, single mothers tend to fall into a social blindspot.
Meghna Banker, mother to a 9-year-old, said that while she personally has not faced discrimination, she was initially reserved and closed off about her single status because she was afraid of the judgement – one challenge for her was to unlearn that she was somehow different because she was a single mother. She also touched upon the common assumption in the case of divorced women – the woman may have been at fault somehow, which isn’t always true.
Interestingly, even the grief around a broken marriage – no matter what the reason – is gendered.
Lata Sinha*, a transportation planner whose relationship ended in separation after she had become a mom, says that it isn’t her single status that bothers people as much as her comfort with it does. The fact that she hasn’t “disappeared into the background” and toned down her personality and sense of style after the separation doesn’t sit well with people.
But commonplace assumptions bring with them a wide range of support systems that single moms cherish immensely.
Support from family and other companionships help single mothers thrive, professionally and personally.
Vani chose to separate from her husband soon after their son was born. As a newly single woman and mother, she was struggling with raising a child alone.
So, through her connections, she established a single parents’ club called Super Parents, where several single parents got together regularly to discuss their doubts, fears, anxieties, and joys.
From school admissions to their child’s behaviour to even the struggles of single parenthood, the group became an important part of Vani’s journey as a single mother.
One of the biggest challenges of being a single mother is not having another parent to fall back on in times of need, but they navigate this with the unwavering support of their friends and family.
Sima Rao* started work as a teacher to support herself and her son after separating from her husband, and she was well-known and loved among her students and staff. It was her rapport that helped her during her battle with breast cancer – she couldn’t afford the treatment, given that her son had just started out in the merchant navy, but her peers came to her aid and handled a majority of the expenses. After 6 months of treatment and her son’s support, she was declared cancer-free.
Lata’s family came to her support as she juggled a separation, a pregnancy, and her PhD.
It was after her son’s birth that Lata thought about the benefits of having a sibling and decided that she wanted him to have a companion. Since she wasn’t interested in a relationship or a marriage, she opted for an IUI (intrauterine insemination) after consulting with her gynaecologist.
She says her parents showed unwavering support during these times as well. By the end of her PhD, she had a 3-year-old son and a newborn daughter.
When Vani had to travel abroad for work for two weeks, her friend offered to temporarily stay at her house and babysit her son. Aside from that, Vani’s neighbours are close with her and have the keys to her apartment. It also helps that Vani’s parents live 30 minutes away from her house.
Similarly, Melanie had her parents’ support when she was going through a divorce and had started living on her own. Her group of friends, whom she has known all her life, have been a constant source of strength.
These support systems help single mothers thrive in their personal lives as well.
Prioritizing self-care is most often a luxury for parents, and more so for single parents. Having a close-knit group of friends whom they can spend time with, or having them around when they want to spend time by themselves can help in this regard. Be it live-in help or a part-time nanny, a little help goes a long way for single parents.
It takes a village to raise a child – and friends and family shape the child’s worldview.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, and nothing holds more true in the case of single parents.
Lata stated how grateful she was for her friends who are present in her childrens’ lives, as they could learn things from them that they wouldn’t learn in a two-parent household. “That way, they know that there isn’t just one way to be.”
Her daughter, for example, enjoys sports while she doesn’t, but Lata has a male friend who enjoys sports who plays with her daughter. Similarly, Meghna talked about how important it was for her daughter to have the presence of her mama and her nana among others in her life, as that can give a child a better understanding of the opposite sex. Relationships such as these also develop in children the importance of building and maintaining meaningful connections. Sima started to introduce her son to his cousins more often for him to have a sense of family, which wasn’t limited to just him and Sima.
Having relationships outside the norms of marriage allows a child to view marriage as a choice and not as a compulsory act. When asked about the importance of male influence in a child’s life, all the mothers implied that
while male influence is an essential part of growing up, the right kind of male influence is something that they could control and let into their childrens’ lives, whether in the form of family, relationships, or marriage.
These relationships allow children to understand the existence of different kinds of families, and that builds a different idea of gender roles in their conscience. When Vani’s son was growing up, he was curious to know why there was no father in the picture, like his friends had.
Similarly, Melanie’s daughters also wondered why they were the only ones with no dad. They also declared that they did not want to get married. However, as they grew older and as Melanie found love and re-married, their ambivalence towards the idea of marriage softened. Vani made sure to talk through these things with her son and showed him movies and shows featuring single-parent households. She also sensitised him to this through her single parent group – they would often take trips together, and the exposure to other children of single parents normalised the idea in his mind. Meghna’s daughter continues to have access to time with her father, which is important in its own right.
How the workplace treats and supports single mothers matters immensely.
Most corporate workplaces have erratic work hours, lack of a work-life balance, and a skewed gender ratio – making it tough on women and on single mothers. Vani remarked how her younger colleagues generally felt in corporate spaces – meetings are sometimes set up post 6 pm, men often stay late at work, and that automatically translates into better appraisals and chances for advancement. This is why a lot of mothers choose jobs that give them flexible working hours, or the privilege of being their own boss.
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Meghna says that being a freelance graphic designer is the ideal option for her, as it gives her more time with her child. This has also given her the ability to choose her own route to educate her child – homeschooling. Meghna believes that the country’s education system doesn’t necessarily provide all the education a child needs, and she is helping to bridge the gap with her child. She says that there are innumerable sources available for this to be possible.
Similarly, Lata decided to start her own company so that she could be her own boss and have enough time with her children. Melanie also chose to quit her full-time job and freelance in order to spend more time with her children. “My income halved, but my ‘mom guilt’ became negligible.” As for Vani, who has a full-time job, daycare facilities are a boon.
But what really went a long way for these mothers is being in an understanding and accepting environment. Vani’s former bosses would sometimes make her doubt her need to work from home on some days. However, they understood her situation and would allow her to leave on time every evening to pick up her son from daycare. Meghna gets to make her own rules as a freelancer, but she makes sure to inform her clients in advance that she is a single mother, and that her child will be a part of the meeting.
Family-friendly policies are the need of the hour. Lata suggests that workplaces should allow for flexible work hours, and that sincerity should be recorded on the basis of deliverables and not on clock-in and clock-out time. Vani agrees – companies should adopt a more understanding attitude towards their employees.
In the COVID-19 pandemic situation, it has become clear that companies can adopt a work-from-home approach to a certain extent – this can help women thrive and companies can retain them in large numbers.
Being a single mother is a rollercoaster – but at the end of the day, the 4.5% of households are making a dent in the structures of all that we consider normative. And that can be a good thing.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the persons.
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